A Guide to Hop-On-Hop-Off in San Francisco

By Teo Spengler; Updated August 11, 2017

Exploring your San Francisco bucket list

A Guide to Hop-On-Hop-Off in San Francisco

Even if you live in San Francisco for a decade, you'll never see every magical corner of the City by the Bay. It's a big city offering a kaleidoscope of fascinating neighborhoods dotted with "must-see" highlights. So, instead of trying to see it all, think of your San Francisco adventure as a time to collect experiences, starting with the ones on top of your list. Here are a few tips to make your visit memorable.

Getting around: cable cars don't go everywhere

Hopping on a cable car during your visit to San Francisco is an absolute must. But cable cars don't go everywhere (or even close to everywhere). You'll need to use other forms of transportation. Since this city is bursting at the seams with locals every day, not to mention tourists, parking is almost impossible on weekdays as well as weekends.

So, opt for private tour buses, public transportation or private ride-sharing or cabs to get from one neighborhood to another. Bikes work well in Golden Gate Park (especially on Sundays when it's closed to cars), but touring the entire city on a bicycle requires both strong legs and a fearless heart.

Getting a ticket to ride

If you decide to take public transport around San Francisco, you can set yourself up with tickets early. For hop-on-hop-off buses, buy tickets in advance online after sorting through all the different routes available and weighing the prices. Remember that you'll need a printed voucher. Displaying vouchers on a smartphone isn't accepted.

As an alternative, consider buying a "Visitor Passport" for unlimited rides on San Francisco buses, trains, streetcars and cable cars. Choose a 1-day, 3-day or 7-day pass. You'll avoid all those lines and be able to get anywhere in the city.

Another good choice is the CityPASS. This includes the same unlimited public transport as a 3-Day Visitor Passport and, in addition, gives you access to points of interest in San Francisco like the Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure, the Exploratorium and the California Academy of Sciences.

Avoiding crowds isn't easy

Well-meaning friends may tell you to visit San Francisco in low season to avoid the crowds, but that's a tall order. In 2016, some 25 million tourists visited the City by the Bay. But, if they'd all gone to Philadelphia instead, San Francisco streets would've still been teaming with people. The city is now home to over 800,000 people, with some 500,000 cars.

So, when is the best time to visit? In summer, tourist sites are most crowded. You'll do better in spring or fall. Winter is even better in terms of crowds (and also less expensive) if you avoid Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.

Seasons are not predictable

Weather doesn't vary as much or as predictably as in other cities. Winters may bring more rain than summers in San Francisco, but if there is a drought – as there has been for much of the past decade – it will rarely rain. Fog visits coastal regions in the mornings and evenings all year-round, and the Pacific is never warm enough for a pleasant dip.

Pack clothing you can layer, and dress in layers to be sure you are comfortable. It may not be worth it to bring an umbrella.

Tips to make the most of your trip

  • Study a map before you arrive to get the lay of the land.
  • Build in some outdoor activities like hikes or beach time.
  • Make time for Golden Gate Park.
  • Explore neighborhoods – don't just eyeball one famous site and zoom off.

About the Author

Teo Spengler